Everything You've Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong (Part 5)
This is the final installment of a five-part essay.
“Ef dez yer tales wuz des fun, fun, fun, en giggle, giggle, giggle, I’d a-done drapt um long ago. W’en it come down ter gigglin’ you kin des count ole Remus out.”
“THE ULTIMATE IRRELEVANCE OF RACE”
Wayne Mixon, in his excellent 1990 article “The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race,” explains that the last decade of Harris’s life was one of the most extreme periods the United States had seen in terms of racism, rioting, and lynching. Atlanta’s race riot occurred in 1906, and during the same year Harris published some of his last Uncle Remus tales.
One story in particular depicts Mr. Man on the hunt for Brer Rabbit with his dogs. They had him cornered, but weren’t able to “tree” him. Mixon goes on:
The little boy then asks, “Why didn’t the dogs tree Brother Rabbit? Don’t you remember how you told me that the dogs on the place here could tree ‘possums?” Remus, unable to answer, utters “a heart-rending groan, as though he was suffering some fearful pang.” The little boy comes to the rescue by saying “I reckon that was before dogs had trained to tree things.”
Remus is shaken. After nearly thirty years, it’s the first time he’s been dumbfounded by the little boy (who, by now, is the son of the original little boy). Unfortunately, this is a story Remus has heard too many times — the story of the lynch mob.
This particular exchange says so much: about the pure cruelty of lynching, about Uncle Remus’s deep connection to Brer Rabbit, about the life-and-death implications of folk tales. Remus’s initiation of the little boy is a re-education, sure, but one with a very clear intent — to foster an empathy between individuals and an empathy between races.
Just as Uncle Remus’s tales are the fictionalized reflection of a struggle between white and black, Remus’s character reflects the struggle Harris experienced during one of the most brutal time periods of the United States. He witnessed the violence and vitriol from a unique point of view at the Atlanta Constitution. Under the constraints of his audience, Harris spoke the language that was expected of him to retain his job and his ability to present his beliefs covertly to a global audience.
Despite the deepening fear and anger directed toward African Americans in the South during this time, Mixon and Robert Cochran cite clauses like these in Harris’s journalism:
• “Is it not true that a man like Booker Washington is an exception in any race?”
• “A model for the men of his race, and indeed, for the men of any race”
• “In common with the great majority of his race — in common, perhaps with the men of all races.”
Cochran picks out these kind of sentences found throughout his work at the paper, explaining that they “unveil Harris quietly but insistently pursuing an anti-racist agenda.” This agenda became louder the more he distanced himself from the paper after retiring in 1900.
Indeed, Mixon cites a 1905 letter to Andrew Carnegie that explains as much. Regarding the impetus of the new Uncle Remus’s Magazine, Harris states that “the only ambition that I have ever had, the only line of policy that I have ever mapped out in my own mind” is to “finally dissipate all ill feelings and prejudices that now exist between the races.”
The founding and very existence of Uncle Remus’s Magazine, Harris continues, is to encourage “the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.” It’s what he could never do overtly at the Atlanta Constitution, and it’s what Uncle Remus attempted to do through the Brer Rabbit tales.
The magazine, begun in 1906 with his son Julian, quickly garnered a readership of over 250,000. Harris died two years later.
— — — — —
Let’s return to what began this diatribe:
“As the racial stereotypes of the nineteenth century are inappropriate today and may be offensive to many contemporary readers, we have eliminated […] Uncle Remus.”
This is the same story we’ve heard about Uncle Remus for the past 60 years. “Eliminated,” or hidden away in a vault. If it’s not that story we’ve heard, it’s been this one: “Irony seems lost on Harris.” Or this one: “Harris probably did not understand this part of the story.” The trouble with these stories are that they’re fiction, but fiction with consequences.
James Weldon Johnson once called the Uncle Remus tales, “the greatest body of folklore America has produced.” But what happens when you ask about Uncle Remus to someone on the street?
What do you think — would Harris, the consummate trickster, regard this as his greatest trick? Or his largest failure?
I’ll conclude (finally) with this story by contemporary author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you’ve managed to read this far, you simply must watch it. If you’ve managed to skim this far, let this be what you pay close attention to.
Don’t worry: it’s not about Joel Chandler Harris. But Uncle Remus? I think so.
John Goldthwaite, “The Black Rabbit: a Fable By, Of, and For the People.” The Natural History of Make-Believe. (via Google Books).
Cheryl Renee Gooch, “The Literary Mind of a Cornfield Journalist: Joel Chandler Harris’s 1904 Negro Question Articles.” (.pdf via the Internatioal Association of Literary Journalism Studies).
Wayne Mixon, “The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race.” (via JSTOR)
Spenser Simrill, Jr. is at least partially responsible for you reading this drudgery — he sent me the Cochran and Mixon articles. Please direct your complaints to him. Amelia Lerner, co-blogger and Program Director, at least ensured that you didn’t have to read too many typos. Thanks to you both.